“Who is going to fly your planes? If there was ever a position that absolutely cannot afford to fail, it’s piloting an airplane.  There is little room for error and dozens or hundreds of lives are hanging on the competency of the person in the pilot’s seat.  In public safety, the consequence of leadership failures may not occur immediately, but anyone who has served in our profession long enough to call it a career, has probably seen the damage done by “poor piloting” within the agency. 

In our world of public safety, credibility, reputation, and the trust of the community is the precious cargo we carry.  Our success determined by the perception based realities of the citizens (not the police) and achieved through meeting or exceeding the expectations created by those perceptions.  Competent leadership throughout our organizations is the key to meeting those expectations.  So I pose this question to all of the decision makers in our public safety organizations.  When you are making internal appointments and promotions within your agency ask yourself “who is going to fly your planes?”

Every level of leader in a police agency should be like the pilot, leading from the front, in the pilot’s seat, not from the rear of the plane.  Through influence and example they take the plane (our precincts, districts and patrol shifts) loaded with our precious cargo of credibility, reputation, and trust.  They fly the plane in a direction that provides thorough and conscientious service to the community, allowing agencies to meet or exceed the level of expectations we strive to achieve.

Poor leadership leads to a poor climate of accountability and disengagement within the organization, soon poor service, dysfunction, and ultimately an agency in constant turmoil (or should we say turbulence) begins to emerge. The leaders within those organizations can make the difference between an agency of excellence or a bad experience, not only for the citizens but the officers as well.

Good pilots are prepared to handle the rough times and if things do get rough; adapt, take control, and pull the plane out of its nose dive.  They are trained, developed, and immersed into all the needs of flying the plane.  We need to do the same for our public safety leaders, not just develop them into good police officers, but prepare them to be leaders as well.

Too often the internal leadership in many agencies is chosen for reasons other than their leadership abilities.  One binding law enforcement tradition purports that the one with the most time on and the most knowledge of agency operations becomes the sergeant, commander, or chief.  Although those two factors can help someone lead, their effectiveness as a leader rests on much more than being there the longest or knowing how everything works.  As a pilot once told me “just because they’ve been the best airplane mechanic for 20 years doesn’t mean they’re ready to fly the plane”.

Sustaining the engagement of today’s generation of public safety employee is one of the biggest challenges facing our profession. The lack of development towards future opportunities can create problematic levels of employee disengagement. To face this challenge, the public safety profession should strive to develop employees into the leaders the agency will need in the future. We need only to look to the private sector and the military for models we can use to design a program that develops future leaders, thus ensuring consistency and continuity in the succession of leadership within the organization.

How many police organizations have internal leadership development programs as part of its training package of  is it the traditional process of getting hired, then the academy, FTO, then the standard 5 or more years of police work?  Then you’re somehow magically ready to be a sergeant, the most influential leadership position in the organization.

The effectiveness of first line leaders can directly impact achieving agency initiatives.  Ineffective leadership training creates friction and obstacles internally because of leaders who were never developed.  Ultimately, this is a failure of the organization more than the individual.

The first and second line leaders have a direct effect on the organizational citizenship of the employees and the agency’s climate of accountability and engagement. Yet many times in our profession, an agency takes a highly motivated candidate, immerses them into the agency through the academy and FTO process, then allows that level of organizational engagement to slowly dissipate for years.  In this traditional process; employees develop into good police officers, not good leaders of police officers – or should we say good airplane mechanics, but not good pilots.

We need to develop the leaders of our officers, not just let it happen.  We owe our officers, our agencies, and the communities we serve that much. Our profession needs to look at processes that put our officers on a career track that includes basic police leadership training early on, then advanced and senior police leadership training, making each stage a part of the eligibility requirements for promotions or appointments to the next level.

Whether incorporating your own internal program within the training unit or by using many of the programs provided by professional public safety associations, implementing a structured process of leader development should be as much a part of the training culture as annual weapons qualifications and in-service training.

The public safety profession has enough issues with internal matters and external pressures from all branches of society confronting it daily. Good leadership throughout an agency can mitigate those challenges by enhancing the climate of accountability within an organization and the level of service going out.  A good leader development program with a process that introduces and trains officers for the leadership challenges at each level of command will, like a good pilot, help our agencies navigate on a course to excellence.

Steven L. Blackwell is a public safety professional with over 30 years’ experience executing, leading, and directing in all functions of policing, with a special focus on community engagement and police special operations. He is an Army veteran who proudly served in Central America, Bosnia, and Iraq.